How did Shakespeare’s single starling from Henry IV, Part 1 take down a passenger plane and wreak environmental havoc across America?
Zoë Comyns explores how one man’s Shakespeare inspired folly continues to have a dire ecological impact more than 100 years later.
BBC Radio 4 Monday 1st July 2019
There are hundreds of references to birds in Shakespeare’s work, some many times over. However, the starling is only mentioned once – in Henry IV, Part 1 and yet this speckled bird is now one of the most hated bird in the US.
That’s all due to the handiwork of one man Eugene Schieffelin. Bronx resident, drug manufacturer and theatre aficionado, Schieffelin was a member of a group called the American Acclimatization Society. This society wanted to introduce European species into the US. In March 1890 Schieffelin did just that – releasing 60 starlings in New York’s Central Park. A year later he released 40 more.
From those releases there are now almost 200 million starlings in North America today and they are causing devastation to indigenous habitats and farmers crops. In 1962 a flock got caught in a plane’s engine, bringing it down, killing 62 people and every year almost $1 billion of crop damage is done by this invasive species.
This programme will explore the legacy of that single starling, Schieffelin’s ill-fated deed and the serious and yet at times humorous attempts to eradicate the bird over the past 100 years. It also explore how Shakespeare has become subsumed into American culture, in part due to acts such as the release of the starlings.
This programme features Professor James Shapiro, Columbia University, Professor Paul Menzer Mary Baldwin University, the cast of the American Shakespeare Centre – including KP Powell as Hotspur, Joe di Constanzo from the American Museum of Natural History, Dan Rausch from Washington DC Department of the Environment, Harriet Ritvo (Environmental Historian) and Laurel Zoet (Pet shop owner and Nature Educator) and finally it features Laurel’s pet bird Pip, the starling who has quite a lot to say for himself.
Music in this features includes tracks by Lullatone.